Mark Kruholz fell in love with computers at first, but his work in astrophysics garnered him an award from the American Astronomical Society. Photo courtesy of Tim Stephens.
Mark Kruholz fell in love with computers at first, but his work in astrophysics garnered him an award from the American Astronomical Society. Photo courtesy of Tim Stephens.

“I was a nerd from a young age,” said UC Santa Cruz astronomy and astrophysics professor Mark Krumholz. “I wasn’t a kid who wanted to take my telescope outside and look up at the stars at night. I mean, it was cold!”

But the astrophysicist didn’t need to see the stars to know they were there. Krumholz’s research into star mass helped garner him an American Astronomical Society (AAS) award this year, but he calls it “a pat on the back.” The self-declared nerd has carved an unconventional path — and it echoes in his lectures.

“[Astronomers] are bullshitting you,” Krumholz said in a recent presentation. “Any star formation theorist who says [the cause of star mass is self-explanatory] is lying to you.” Having spent years searching for the actual cause of star mass, Krumholz’s conviction is justified.

Years ago, the programming marvels of stone-age computers gave a young Krumholz little need to venture outside. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Krumholz dove into physics and later, as a graduate student, into the issue of star formation at UC Berkeley.

Today, Krumholz still isn’t the kind of astronomer who hikes up to the University of California Observatories Lick Observatory and gazes at distant galaxies. Instead, his research is an ongoing conversation between the computer programs he writes and the simulations of reality that offsite supercomputers send back.

But the fusion between man and machine doesn’t stop at the laboratory door. Krumholtz has spent several years coordinating two vastly different institutions and has extracted a similar truth from both mergers.

It started casually. Early in his graduate career at UC Berkeley (UCB), Krumholz added himself to an email list for scholastic volunteer work. The first email he received described the Prison University Project at San Quentin state prison, a program that offers a fully-accredited associates degree to inmates.

His classes ranged from pre-arithmetic to calculus, but Krumholz said teaching inmates was not in total contrast to teaching at UCB.

“It’s not like there’s an armed guard with a shotgun standing at the back of the classroom,” Krumholz said.

The chance of an education at San Quentin inspired many inmates to transfer from other prisons — a move pulling them further apart from their families.

“That level of dedication is beyond the average of undergraduates I’ve encountered. And that shows up in the way they act in a classroom and in a class,” Krumholz said. “It’s different in that you’re teaching students who have a hell of a lot less confidence. You don’t show weakness in a prison … and raising your hand when you are not sure of the answer seems like weakness.”

After accepting a faculty position at UCSC, Krumholz joined the UCSC Project for Inmate Education, a small group of volunteers currently providing free classes at the Santa Cruz County Jail. Krumholz said the shorter detention periods for jail inmates translates to less support for education programming than at San Quentin. He said the experience has been difficult.

“If I want to teach a quarter-long class that’s supposed to last 10 or 15 weeks — well, there aren’t a lot of people who are going to be there for 10 or 15 weeks,” Krumholz said. “To do it successfully in a jail would require a higher level of institutional commitment.”

But after getting inmates engaged in math, Krumholz said,  teaching UCSC students has been easier.

“You have to be willing to look like a bit of a fool,” Krumholz said. “Nothing gets students engaged like the professor making an idiot of him or herself.”

To the contrary, Krumholz feels more pride than embarrassment when he exposes his discoveries about star mass to his students — because he has found a possible solution.

“One of my big insights that I’m proud of is understanding why [different stars are different sizes],” Krumholz said. “Stars, in a sense , determine their own mass — through [a] feedback process of young stars irradiating their environment.”

So while the recent award from the AAS will help fund Krumholz’s inmate education and astrological research, Krumholz said he hopes the recognition will inspire an universal commitment for the sciences in the Golden State.

“California has benefited enormously from being a center of science and technology,” Krumholz said. “And cutting your investment in that is the sort of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking at which the state of California has unfortunately gotten very good.”

In an era of constant budget cuts, Krumholz  has found a worldly motive for continued funding of astronomy.

“I do hope that in some small way the award can contribute to the idea that UC Santa Cruz astronomy is worth preserving and protecting.”